In 1681, authorities in New France granted a pardon the coureurs des bois who were trading in its territory without a license. By that time, up to a third of the young men were roaming the woods. While offering amnesty, the government also encouraged them to go and work for Montreal merchants who were licensed to trade. The profession of voyageur was born.
Many came from farming families. Contrary to popular belief, voyageurs were not simply looking for freedom and adventure. They wanted to make enough money to buy land and farming equipment, and to start a family. The job served as a type of savings plan for families with many sons and only one farm to pass on.
Between 1800 and 1821, nearly a thousand Iroquois signed up with the trading companies. The Iroquois were skilled canoemen, and further supported the company by hunting and trapping in the Pays d'en haut. This nation also provided guides, interpreters and hunters for food. Some Iroquois stayed behind in the North West after their contract expired.
A board of shareholders ran the HBC from London. Merchants, whom they called "officers", were English, while hired men, called "servants", came mostly from Scotland. HBC contracts were restrictive and held little chance for advancement. In , the company forbad employees to have intimate relationships with Aboriginal peoples.
In order to compete with the NWC, the HBC began hiring French Canadian voyageurs in 1804. This move helped them increase the flow of trade goods. For the voyageurs, rivalry between the companies had its advantages. Competition for the pool of labour led to improvements in wages and living conditions.
A typical voyageur needed to be flexible and nimble. With an average height of 165cm, he had endure hard work and harsh conditions while keeping in good spirits. Not surprisingly, farmers' sons, who were accustomed to toiling in the fields, made up the majority of voyageurs. The men also wore their hair long to protect themselves from mosquitoes.
At the height of the fur trade between 1815 and 1821, as many as 500 voyageur contracts were signed per year, a remarkable number considering the small population at the time.
The voyageur's life was difficult. For these men, entertainment provided a way to endure cold, hunger and fatigue. That's why voyageurs had a tireless sense of humour and joie de vivre. Even after a hard day, they knew how to have fun, laugh and relax.
While some voyageurs may have been passionate about their job, they were all in it to make money to support their families. The hired men were especially profitable for the trading company owners, who saw in them a reliable, plentiful and inexpensive workforce to carry out their day-to-day business.
Voyageurs ranged in age, starting as young as their late teens. Some worked past their 60th birthday. Life expectancy also varied, since a number of them died on the job.
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